Bullpen a dominating force for Jays

Bullpen a dominating force for Jays

TORONTO -- There's a certain level of comfort for the Blue Jays, knowing B.J. Ryan is once again lurking in their bullpen. Toronto's closer provides an intimidating presence that was absent for most of last season after he severely injured his left elbow early in the year.

Ryan has made his way back, anchoring one of baseball's elite bullpens and giving the Blue Jays a sound sense of security when handing the 6-foot-6 left-hander the ball in the ninth inning. And with every save Ryan notches, any lingering questions about his health continue to disappear.

Especially within Toronto's clubhouse.

"Not for me," said Jays first baseman Lyle Overbay, when asked if there was any remaining concern about Ryan's arm. "Knock on wood."

In the ninth inning on Thursday night, Ryan made his familiar sprint from the bullpen to the mound at Rogers Centre, where he needed just 13 pitches to finish off a trio of Angels hitters to clinch a 4-3 win for the Jays. The victory avoided a sweep for Toronto, which received some timely hitting to support a decent effort from A.J. Burnett.

Los Angeles' Mike Napoli swung through Ryan's final pitch -- a 90-mph heater -- for a game-ending strikeout. For Ryan, it marked his 10th save in 10 chances since being activated from the disabled list on April 13, and the shutout inning lowered his season ERA to 0.60.

"We were excited when he got back," Overbay said, "because he doesn't need to throw 95. He can be really effective in an 88-90 mph range. It's good to know that he's back there."

The decisive blow for the Blue Jays (24-25) came in the sixth inning, when Overbay sent a 2-2 slider from Angels right-hander Ervin Santana bouncing off the facing of the second deck in right field for a solo home run. That put Toronto ahead, 4-3, and effectively canceled out a brief lapse by Burnett, who spun six solid innings.

After Overbay's well-timed blast put the Blue Jays on top, manager John Gibbons opted to turn the game over to his steady relief corps.

"We've got a good bullpen down there," Ryan said. "Everybody is stepping up and answering the bell for us. It's a good feeling down there, and you just want to get out there and pitch."

First in line after Burnett's outing was rookie left-hander Jesse Carlson, who has fit right in with a bullpen that entered Thursday with an American League-leading 3.09 ERA. In the seventh inning, Carlson set down Sean Rodriguez, Maicer Izturis and Gary Matthews Jr. in order with strikeouts -- more of the same from the southpaw.

That showing gave Carlson a 1.77 ERA with 22 strikeouts this season in 20 1/3 innings, spanning across 24 appearances -- the second-most outings in the AL. He's quickly joined Ryan and setup man Scott Downs to form a dominant late-inning combination for the Blue Jays.

"He's catching everybody by surprise," Overbay said about Carlson. "But it doesn't surprise you once you watch what he's got. It's good. We need those kind of guys who can step up and take some people by surprise, and he's been in some big ballgames for us and produced."

Following Carlson was Downs, who faced the minimum in a crisp eighth inning. Clinging to a one-run lead, Downs induced a flyout off the bat of Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero, who launched two homers against Toronto on Wednesday night to play hero for Los Angeles (28-21).

Downs then allowed a base hit to Garret Anderson but quickly created an inning-ending double play to escape the threat. Downs, Carlson and Ryan -- all lefties -- have combined to post a 1.67 ERA this season for the Jays. That's not even including lefty Brian Tallet, who has a 1.27 ERA in a bullpen-leading 21 1/3 innings.

"They just continue to roll," Gibbons said. "What more can you say about those guys?"

The bullpen continued its early-season run and Toronto's offense showed some signs of life.

Against a tough opponent in Santana (6-2), the Jays churned out nine hits, including three for extra bases. Overbay's homer was the big blow, but utility man Joe Inglett -- filling in for veteran Matt Stairs (out with a stiff neck) -- got things rolling with a run-scoring triple in the third inning.

Toronto established a 3-0 lead by the fourth inning, but Burnett (5-4) coughed up three runs over the next two frames to allow the Angels back into the game. Burnett's curveball was sharp all night, helping collect six strikeouts, but an ill-timed cutter in a two-run fifth for the Angels led to an RBI double by Rodriguez.

"If I had to do it all over it again," Burnett said, "that's the one mistake I threw. Everything else, it was a good ballgame."

The Angels knotted the score at 3 in the sixth after Burnett issued a two-out walk and subsequently yielded consecutive singles. Of course, those few miscues mattered little when it was all said and done, thanks to Overbay's heroics and the showing by the Jays relievers.

"A.J. was good," Gibbons said. "He didn't explode there at the end when they tied it. But we turned it over to the bullpen, and those guys are pretty good out there."

Especially Ryan, who is starting to resemble the stopper that saved 38 games for Toronto in 2006.

"It's always good to finish off a game," Ryan said.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.